For close to two weeks now, NASA has been waiting for just the right moment to launch its Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (aka ATREX), a mission that will help us better understand the mysterious, high-altitude jet streams located at the edges of Earth's atmosphere. Early this morning, that moment finally came — and hot damn, was it cool looking.
Just minutes before the close of today's 12:00am—5:00am launch window, NASA unleashed a series of suborbital rockets high into Earth's atmosphere from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Once all the rockets were airborne, each one released a luminescent chemical tracer, generating a number of glowing, milky white clouds. These clouds were quickly swept every-which-way by high-altitude winds — some of them in excess of 300 miles per hour — whipping around where our planet's atmosphere runs up against the boundary of space. By watching how these artificial clouds disperse in the upper atmosphere, researchers hope to acquire a more intimate understanding of the movement of winds as high as 65 miles above the Earth's surface.
You can watch a video of the launch here, but what we really want to draw your attention to are the jaw-dropping, high resolution images of the glowing chemical tracers featured below. What's really striking about many of these images isn't necessarily the tracers themselves, but the tracers as they appear against the backdrop of a crisp, clear, star-studded night sky. The artificial clouds generated by ATREX were reportedly visible from Massachusetts to North Carolina, but we're guessing a lot of people didn't get a chance to witness this spectacle with their own eyes. Trust us — you'll definitely want to click on these images for the full-screen experience.